IT staff at Scottsdale Community College  find server management an easier task now that storage is virtualized, Chief Technology Officer Grant Gagnon says. 

Colleges Gain Flexibility with Storage Virtualization

IT managers say virtualizing storage helps them to manage data more efficiently, and in less time.

While storage virtualization may not generate the excitement of a Broadway opening or the emotional ups and downs of a baseball pennant race, it makes life a lot easier for IT managers.

Once an abstruse topic typically understood by only the most tech-savvy IT pros, virtualization is making storage much more manageable and less time-consuming for many IT managers.

"Think of storage virtualization as the next logical step from server virtualization," says Grant Gagnon, chief technology officer at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. "What server virtualization did for the server world, storage ­virtualization has done for storage. It used to take us up to an hour to bring a three-server SQL database cluster online. With storage virtualization, we can do it in a matter of minutes, with little or no downtime."

Gagnon says the college recently upgraded its storage environment with DataCore Software's SANsymphony storage virtualization product and flash storage from Fusion-io. The college also deployed SMB 3 with iWARP, Microsoft's 10 Gigabit Ethernet storage communications protocol, an upgrade from the college's 4Gbps Fibre Channel system.

"We now have the most recent storage virtualization technology, plus SMB 3 with iWARP gives us much better response times and allows our server administrators simpler management of their storage resources," Gagnon says.

The move to the Microsoft transmission protocol follows the college's transition from Citrix server virtualization to Microsoft Hyper-V, Gagnon says. The college will most likely stick with Citrix for desktop and application virtualization, he adds, but competitive licensing costs offered by Microsoft for Hyper-V make good economic sense. The Microsoft setup lets Scottsdale use standard 10 Gig-E switches for storage transmission instead of more costly Fibre Channel switches.

"For now, we'll stick with a hybrid, best-of-breed approach for virtualization, with Citrix for desktop and application virtualization, Microsoft on the server side and DataCore for storage virtualization," he says.

Benefits Beyond Cost

David Kiklis, director of IT operations and security at Babson College in Babson Park, Mass., agrees costs savings are important, but he also cites storage virtualization's ease of management as a feature that's made all the difference for him and his IT staff.

Babson College recently piloted storage virtualization, says Kiklis, who points out that the tight integration between the server and storage systems gives his team the flexibility to move servers and storage around without being restricted by physical devices.

35%

Percentage of IT managers who are familiar with the I/O blender effect, a term describing how storage performance degrades in virtual environments. Of those who know the term, 67 percent say they have taken steps to address the issue.

SOURCE: IDC, "Storage for Virtual Environments Survey," May 2014

In the past, if one of the college's websites went down, the IT team was forced to move the database back to the last known good backup, then do a restore from the backup, which also required physical drive connections to be re-established.

"The entire recovery process could take us two hours," Kiklis says. "With storage virtualization, we can instantaneously recover the database and do it all in software, alleviating the need to make new physical connections. With students paying close to $60,000 a year for an education, that kind of speed and uptime make all the difference in the world. For the money they are paying, students expect always-on, reliable IT service."

"Wherever data resides, having everything virtualized allows system administrators to apportion storage to the correct devices, servers and applications without changing physical connections," says Mark Peters, a senior analyst who focuses on storage virtualization at the Enterprise Strategy Group. "These products often let IT managers make changes across heterogeneous storage arrays, which protects an organization's legacy storage investment."

A Nimble Approach

Alan Price, systems administrator at The College of Idaho in Caldwell, Idaho, says IT managers should remember that even in a virtualized environment, the need to configure a physical device does not go away.

"We still have to install a controller or an array, but the ways we can manage the data are much more streamlined," says Price, who deployed a storage virtualization array from Nimble Storage. "I now have a gigantic pool of storage, but instead of managing arrays one at a time, I can move the storage around and apportion it based on whether I need higher performance or simply need more space. I don't talk to an array, I talk to the pool."

Adding controllers and storage arrays is now simply a matter of Price's team plugging it into the rack, giving the device some IP space, setting up a password and then assigning network parameters.

"Right now, we just have one Nimble array," he says, "but I feel we've set ourselves up for future growth. Now, if we want to add controllers and storage arrays, we can plug them into the rack, knowing they will work right away. We can manage them under a single pane of glass with one virtual IP address that talks to the VMware virtual machines."

While storage virtualization has been available for many years, newer supporting hardware is easier to install, and IT managers are no longer required to be storage experts in order to use the management tools. A large institution looking to protect its legacy investment in storage arrays, or a small college now planning for the future, will both find that storage virtualization should be part of their IT department's next steps.

Steve Craft
Aug 13 2014